C.S. Lewis: Fascinating Storyteller, Repelling Theologian
The Chronicles of Narnia fascinated me at an early age. As such was my habit with books I enjoyed, I read them through over and over again. (It was hard to choose, but The Silver Chair was—and is—my favorite.)
The books appeared to be analogies to Scripture and Christianity. But some of the teachings perplexed me when I was young—such as the implications in The Last Battle. Susan was no longer a believer? And a rejector of Aslan, a Calormene who believed in the false god Tash, went to “Heaven,” such as Heaven was in the Chronicles?
I also read Out of the Silent Plant, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. They were interesting, but I was not as fond of them as the Chronicles.
Several years after first reading the Chronicles, I read Mere Christianity.
Then, the misgivings in childhood hardened into objections to the teachings in Mere Christianity. For example:
“But if you are a poor creature—poisoned by a wretched up-bringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels—saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion—nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends—do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all—not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.)”
Let’s go through this one point at a time. “Poisoned by a wretched upbringing”: Where is Original Sin if you aren’t poisoned by your own sinful nature — but those wretches who brought you up poisoned you!
“Saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion”: More muddying of theological waters. Lewis is giving his own version of the mantra we hear nowadays in excuse for sodomy, but this could just as easily apply to any sexual deviants. Pedophiles, necrophiliacs, sodomites, lesbians, bestiliacs... He does not acknowledge the difference between having sexual desires and committing sexual acts. After all, we who are virgins have sexual desires, but we have not acted upon them.
But in Lewis’ teaching, sexual perversion is a discrete thing separate from the actual perverts, who bear no responsibility for what they are. And he does not explain where the responsibility for the existence of these “loathsome sexual perversions” lie, but if God is the creator, then did God force loathsome sexual perversions upon certain human beings?
“But if you are a poor creature,” “You are one of the poor whom he blessed”: Lewis uses the term ‘poor’ as to mean ‘unfortunate’—not as in monetary poverty; one could be a millionaire’s scion and be brought up in a house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels. (In fact, the latter may be more likely in the household of the rich.) Lewis says that the unfortunate are the ones whom “Jesus blessed,” but what was the context of Jesus’ statement?
Jesus had said, “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.” Luke 6:20b - 21
Hungering and weeping are physical actions and Jesus meant them in that sense. Given the chronology of His remarks, it is quite reasonable to take His meaning of poor as materially or physically poor.
“He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive...[O]ne day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) He will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one.” Our bodies are... machines that go to a... “scrap-heap”? Did Lewis mean hell or did he mean some cosmic landfill? And as to giving the person a “new machine” — Did Lewis trust the teaching in 2 Cor. 5:17, that if “any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new”?
Indeed, Lewis is hardly reliable in defense of Scripture. He called the Psalmists “ferocious, self-pitying, barbaric men,” and wrote of Psalm 23,
Worst of all in “The Lord is my shepherd” (23), after the green pasture, the waters of comfort, the sure confidence in the valley of the shadow, we suddenly run across (5) “Thou shalt prepare a table for me against them that trouble me”—or, as Dr. Moffatt translates it, “Thou art my host, spreading a feast for me while my enemies have to look on.” The poet’s enjoyment of his present prosperity would not be complete unless those horrid Joneses (who used to look down their noses at him) were watching it all and hating it.
“The poet’s enjoyment of his present prosperity would not be complete...”
Lewis reads more into the text than it presents. The Psalmist was simply stating a fact that God provided his food for him in the presence of his enemies. He did not say that his enjoyment of eating food (and why Lewis implies eating food is exceptional prosperity is beyond me) would not be complete without his enemies watching. Second, “those horrid Joneses who used to look down their noses at him”? This mocks David, by impugning the pettiest of reasons to consider someone his enemy. In reality, the enemies of David were far from Joneses merely looking down their noses at him. They were paranoid, crazed men such as King Saul.
This may not be so diabolical as the passages I quoted above; but the pettiness and vulgarity of it, especially in such surroundings, are hard to endure.
Lewis reads pettiness and vulgarity into the Psalm. And “hard to endure”—So the 23rd Psalm was hard to endure? I ask, if Lewis found reading Psalm 23 “hard to endure,” what would he have called a life bereft of creature comforts, much less an experience such as Richard Wurmbrand’s fourteen years in Communist jail?
Finally, Lewis writes as if he were on a higher moral and literal plane than the Psalms.
One way of dealing with these terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible Psalms is simply to leave them alone.
Note: Reflections of the Psalms was published only four years before C.S. Lewis died; one cannot excuse C.S. Lewis’ criticism and contempt for the Psalms as some anomaly early on after he ceased to be an atheist.
Let us return to the problems in the book he called “Mere Christianity”—but which could almost be called, “Mere Theism.” After all, Lewis declared therein:
There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position.
To claim a man can “belong to Christ without knowing it [and thus without knowing Christ]” contradicts Jesus’ declaration, And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent. John 17:3
What kind of Christ and what kind of God would cause people to believe in Him without making it clear to those people exactly in Whom they believed?
What kind of God would give salvation to someone who didn’t acknowledge the true source of his salvation and attributed his goodness to some other religious teacher? Scripture records that Christ told his disciples to preach the gospel to all nations; but if Christ is willing to extend salvation to those who never believe in His name or who cling to the teachings of men such as Buddha, his disciples did not, and do not, need to preach the Gospel to all nations. After all, Buddhism can lead you to Christ. Hinduism can get you to Christ.
Lewis also diminishes the value of Christ’s shed blood on the cross as he asserts,
Humanity is already ‘saved’ in principle. We individuals have to appropriate that salvation. But the really tough work—the bit we could not have done for ourselves”has been done for us. We have not got to try to climb up into spiritual life by our own efforts; it has already come down into the human race. If we will only lay ourselves open to the one Man in whom it is fully present, and who, in spite of being God, is also a real man, he will do it in us and for us. Remember what I said about ‘good infection.’ One of our own race has this new life: if we get close to Him we shall catch it from Him.
Of course, you can express this in all sorts of different ways. You can say that Christ died for our sins. You may say that the Father has forgiven us because Christ has done for us what we ought to have done. You may say that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You may say that Christ has defeated death. They are all true. If any of them do [sic] not appeal to you, leave it alone and get on with the formula that does. And, whatever you do, do not start quarreling with other people because they use a different formula from yours.
Salvation, then, is likened to a “good infection,” one that you can “catch” from Jesus when you get close enough to Him. Lewis fails to specify how close that close enough must be.
Jesus Himself never spoke of “catching” eternal life; eternal life was given, not caught.
Lewis also believed man came from animals, only that God guided the process. In The Problem of Pain, published 1940, he writes:
If by saying that man rose from brutality you mean simply that man is physically descended from animals, I have no objections. [...]
For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumbs could be applied to each of its fingers, and jaws and teeth and the throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man. [...] We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state.
And if his rejection of Old Testament as factual history could not be clearer:
The Hebrews, like other peoples, had mythology: but, as they were the chosen people so their mythology was the chosen mythology—the mythology chosen by God to be the vehicle of the earliest sacred truths, the first step in that process which ends in the New Testament where truth has become completely historical. Whether we can ever say with certainty where, in the process of crystallization, any particular Old Testament story falls, is another matter. I take it that the memoirs of David’s court come at one end of the scale and are scarcely less historical than St. Mark or Acts; and that the Book of Jonah is at the opposite end. —Miracles, p. 139
Funny that the New Testament recorded Jesus Himself presenting Jonah as historical truth—in Matthew 12:38-41:
Then certain of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Master, we would see a sign from thee.” 39 But He answered and said unto them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonah: 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and, behold, a greater than Jonah is here.
C.S. Lewis also prayed for the dead:
Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden.
In the same letter, he adds,
I believe in Purgatory. Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory as that Romish doctrine had then become. I don’t mean merely the commercial scandal. [...] The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s DREAM. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer ‘With its darkness to affront that light’. Religion has reclaimed Purgatory. Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they?
Lewis references no Scripture to substantiate his belief in praying for the dead, nor for his belief in Purgatory. Indeed, he cites a man’s book, Newman’s DREAM.
Looking at Scripture, we find no pattern of praying for the dead, nor of Purgatory. We remember that king David fasted and prayed for his sick infant son when the son was alive; but after the son died, he asked his servants to bring him food and made no more supplication to God for his son (2 Samuel 12:16-23).
We recall that Jesus, in His parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19 - 31), gives no method for the redeemed to be put into hell nor “cleansing Purgatory”, nor for those in hell to be released from hell. For He quotes Abraham, “Now he [Lazarus] is comforted, and thou art tormented; And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.”
We also recall that Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross, “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43, emphasis added).
Furthermore, when Revelation describes souls in Heaven, we see no soul there begging to be taken away and cleansed. Believing that a Christian soul needs to be purified further contradicts 1 John 1:7—that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.
One could cite many more examples of Lewis’ dismissal of Scripture and rejection of its doctrines, but I will not.
The man who reads Scripture with faith, who day by day turns to it to sustain and guide him, cannot but find C.S. Lewis’ un-Scriptural theology repulsive.
But since Scripture is unsurpassed in providing peace and joy, one will also pity the storyteller. For Lewis denied himself the comfort, the reassurance, of Scripture by rejecting its authority.